The Indy 500 is a very American event, but has always had strong foreign influence.
It's hard to explain: The Indy 500, that bastion of American tradition, that oldest of all American races, has a Brazilian as its defending champion. What's more, the last American-made chassis to win was in 1982, and the last winner powered by an American-built engine, was the Foyt (nee Ford) in the hands of the legendary A.J. himself, in 1977.
Actually, though confusing, it's nothing new, and doesn't really diminish the all-American nature of the Brickyard's 500-miler. Indy is unique.
The early days
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the brainchild of Indianapolis entrepreneur and part-time racer Carl Fisher, who felt Americans needed a place to test cars at the super high speeds - 75 mph and up, in those days - that were achieved on the open roads in Europe. Most American racing at the time was on one-mile horsetracks at county fairgrounds.
Fisher envisioned a paved oval that would enable American auto builders to test their machines and train their drivers at high speed before going to race in Europe. His facility became the 2.5-mile rectangular racetrack we know as Indy. The first 500-miler was run in 1911, and the track configuration has really not changed since.
Neither has the foreign influence.
Ray Harroun won the first 500 in an Indiana-built Marmon Wasp, but the field included Fiats and Mercedes. After 1913, when a Peugeot won, French and German cars dominated.
American Gaston Chevrolet won in 1920, in a Frontenac built by brother Louis. The 1921 Indy 500 was won by another Frontenac. American Jimmy Murphy won the 1921 French Grand Prix in a Dusenburg, then captured the 1922 Indy 500. It looked as though Fisher's hopes for a training ground had been met. Unfortunately, no other American would win a European Grand Prix in an American-built car until Dan Gurney did it in an Eagle, at Belgium, in 1967.
Dusenburgs and Millers would pretty much rule at the Speedway until racing stopped for World War II. Europeans largely stayed away from the 500. With two exceptions - Maseratti in '39 and '40 - only Americans in American-built cars won there from '23 to '64.
In 1961, Australian Jack Brabham brought his tiny Cooper Climax Grand Prix car to Indy. It had the engine in the back, and started an engineering revolution.
In 1963, British car builder Colin Chapman brought a pair of rear-engined Lotus cars to Indy, with Dan Gurney and Jim Clark. They didn't win that year, but Clark almost did. When Clark won in '65, his Lotus was powered by an engine built in the United States...by Ford.
Clark and Lotus were followed by a number of other European drivers and carmakers. By the '70s, the Americans had fought back. Gurney, building Eagle chassis, was the dominant car builder at Indy for a while, trading wins with McLaren. The dominant engines through '77 were the American Fords and Offies.
Then came the British-built Cosworth. The Cosworth, ironically, was derived from a Formula One engine jointly produced by Ford and Cosworth that debuted in 1967...in a Lotus.
The whirl of history has led to the swirling mix of American and foreign technologies and drivers we have today. The winningest team owner at Indy is American Roger Penske, who builds his own cars...in England. For the last six years, the winning engine was a Chevrolet... designed buy a Swiss and built by Ilmor Engineering in England. It was first brought to the Speedway by Penske, who will use Mercedes engines this year...designed and built by Ilmor, in England.
Chevrolet has opted out for the time being. Ford, however, got back into the game again two years ago...with an engine built by their old friends at Cosworth. But the electronic engine management systems used by most teams are either Delco or Ford systems.
Bobby Rahal, the 1986 Indy 500 winner, tried to bring an American-made chassis to Indy last year but failed to qualify. This year, he'll be in a 'traditional' Indy chassis; a British-built Lola, powered by the new Honda engine.
Still, to call Indy anything other than an all-American institution would be wrong. This form of racing; high-speed, open-wheel, superspeedway racing, is done nowhere else in the world. And it all originated right here in Indianapolis, right with the Indy 500.